Books: Paradise Found

The Nobel Prize changed Toni Morrison's life but not her art, as her new novel proves

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This building has a tangled history, but by the late 1960s, it is occupied only by an elderly dying nun and Consolata, her devoted servant and helper of 30 years. And the Convent becomes, with Consolata's diffident acquiescence, a refuge for broken young women, on the run from husbands or boyfriends, parents or the messes they have made of their lives elsewhere. If they show up and have nowhere else to go, Consolata lets them stay.

Paradise establishes these two locales--the place where men rule and the one where women try to escape that rule--in a manner far more complex, nuanced and ambiguous than any summary can reproduce. It is a mistake common to both Morrison's admirers and critics to understand her fiction too quickly. The violent act that begins and ends Paradise--the assault of the men of Ruby on the women in the Convent--cannot be described simply as a feminist parable, as some early reviewers have already dubbed it.

Morrison has argued for years that stories and storytelling convey information, necessary information, available nowhere else. She made this case again in her Nobel Prize address: "The vitality of language lies in its ability to limn the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speakers, readers, writers. Although its poise is sometimes in displacing experience, it is not a substitute for it. It arcs toward the place where meaning may lie." To read Morrison as an allegorist or a sloganeer is to overlook completely the power of her art.

That power is visible on nearly every page of Paradise. Morrison's prose remains the marvel that it was in her earlier novels, a melange of high literary rhetoric and plain talk. She can turn pecan shelling into poetry: "the tick of nut meat tossed in the bowl, cooking utensils in eternal adjustment, insect whisper, the argue of long grass, the faraway cough of cornstalks." She captures the stark geography surrounding Ruby: "This land is flat as a hoof, open as a baby's mouth." And she builds Ruby practically brick by brick: its streets (named after the four Gospels), the three churches (Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal) ministering to a population of 360.

These people, particularly the men, are fascinating mixtures of virtues and vices: proud, independent, argumentative, close-minded. The twins, Deacon and Steward Morgan, grandsons of one of Haven's founding fathers, are angry at the way the town's young people have begun to act up, loitering around the communal oven with radios blaring--it is the '60s, remember--and questioning the authority of the elders. Something is polluting Ruby, the Morgans and others like them believe, threatening the one place in the world where they have ever felt safe.

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